Two great articles in the New Year highlight the downside to the recent boom in fine wine and spirits consumption. One the wine side, Jordan Mackay, writing at Zester Daily, says that too many young sommeliers are in over their heads. On the spirits side, Clay Risen says in The Atlantic that the new generation of microdistillers have plenty of enthusiasm, but have decades to go until they make truly great products.
Mackay, a wine and cocktail writer who co-authored (with Rajat Parr) a book called Secrets of the Sommeliers says that a combination of high demand for wine experts at restaurants and the natural transition among experienced sommeliers to wine wholesalers and distributors has left a vacuum. The interesting part is all of the nasty stories of eager young sommeliers leading diners astray.
Risen’s piece was a bigger surprise, because what he says is counter-intuitive: while microbrewed beers are very often better than what the big breweries put out, the same does not hold true for spirits. He writes:
Jim Beam is owned by Fortune Brands, a $7.5 billion megacorporation based in suburban Chicago that also makes golf gear. But I have yet to sample a craft whiskey that comes close even to Jim Beam’s most basic offering, the four-year-old White Label, let alone its small-batch bourbons like Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, or Booker’s. Four Roses is owned by Japan’s enormous Kirin Brewing, but its Mariage is possibly the best bourbon sold in America.
The reason the big guys keep turning out great products is that most of them began as craft products, long before “craft” was popular. Eventually the industry merged, and outside corporations took over. But these new owners recognized the importance of quality in a way that never occurred in brewing or meat processing; Fortune, for example, wisely let the Beam family and its allies retain creative control over the distilling process. Kirin resurrected Four Roses as a premium brand after it had languished for decades under domestic ownership.
Again, the message is that experience trumps enthusiasm.
It’s important to note, however, that no one is saying these young sommeliers and distillers are bad—just that they need to keep working at it to reach the heights of their elders. We should be glad that a large and open market has made such opportunities possible.